To many of us, January 6th means little more than that the time has come for the dismantling of the Crib or the discarding of the Christmas tree. But the Church has always regarded the Epiphany as a most joyous feast, commemorative of God's bounteous calling of pagan nations to salvation. Pope St. Leo the Great thus invites Christians to participate in its celebration: "Let us recognize in the Magi who adore Christ, the primordial fruits of our vocation and of our faith; and let us celebrate with exultant spirits the beginnings of our blessed hope. ... Just as they drew forth from their treasuries mystical gifts, to offer them to the Lord, so let us bring forth from our hearts those things which are worthy of God."
Following the opinion of some of the Fathers, we usually represent the Magi as being three in number. We call them Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Various different numbers and names are assigned to them by other peoples.
We sometimes wonder why the birth of Christ should have been announced to the Magi. Since the Nativity was the foreshadowing of the universal redemption He was to effect, it was fitting that His birth be proclaimed to men of every race and condition of life. It was announced to the Jews and to those who were simple and of lowly station, in the persons of the Shepherds; to the holy and just and to both sexes, in the persons of Simeon and Anna; to the Gentiles, the learned, the powerful, and sinners, in the persons of the Magi.
What became of the Magi after they returned to their own country we do not know. It is said that after the Resurrection St. Thomas the Apostle baptized them, and they became his associates in the preaching of the Gospel. A tradition also says that they were martyrs and that their bodies were venerated first at Constantinople, transferred later to Milan, and taken to Cologne when Barbarossa conquered Milan. Even to this day the relics of the Three Kings are venerated at a shrine in the Cathedral at Cologne.
When we wish to impart information to others by signs, we use those signs which are most familiar to them. At the time of Christ's birth, the Gentiles, and especially astronomers such as the Magi were, devoted much time and attention to the study of the stars. We can therefore see that the use of a star as a sign to the Magi was very apt and fitting.
To guide them thus, the star must have moved in a southerly di- rection, unlike ordinary stars. Furthermore, it must have been travelling close to the earth to guide the Magi onward and, by stopping, to point out the particular house where Jesus and Mary were. God could have made one of the ordinary stars leave its orbit and act as this guiding star did. But since miracles are not to be multiplied without necessity, we must seek another solution. Breen expresses the common opinion with regard to the nature of the star, in these words:
Now let us look at this matter in a practical way. Let us represent to ourselves that we are seeking a certain habitation in some small village, and that God should deign to show us thither by a star. We can readily see how close that star must be to the object of our search. A star must be close to the earth to point out a village; closer still, to distinguish a certain dwelling in that village. Resting on these sure foundations, we believe that the star of Bethlehem was a created light of great brightness, called into being by the omnipotence of God for this express purpose.
The use of the star to guide the Magi gave rise to the Order of the Star, instituted in France early in the eleventh century in honor of the Blessed Virgin, Star of the Sea. The purpose of the Order was to implore the Blessed Mother to be a guiding star to its members.
The Magi offered gifts to the divine Infant: gold, a precious metal; frankincense, a gum which, when burnt, yields pleasant aromatic fumes; myrrh, a bitter aromatic gum of great value, used in making ointments for the body and for embalming. They were certainly gifts fit for a king. St. Bernard was of the opinion that the Magi offered gold to succor the poverty of the Holy Family, myrrh to strengthen Christ's infant limbs, frankincense to offset the unpleasant odors of the stable. Some suggest that the frankincense and the myrrh may have been sold and that their price, together with the gold, may have supported the Holy Family during their sojourn in Egypt. However, it is generally held that the frankincense was burned in honor of the Child.
St. Thomas Aquinas says that in their offering of gold, which signifies power, the Magi acknowledged Christ as the Creator: in the offering of myrrh, which is a preservative, they confessed Him as the conserver of all created things; in their offering of frankincense, they recognized him as the Redeemer for just as frankincense is immolated in honour of God, so Christ was to be immolated on the Cross for the redemption of mankind. Some of the Fathers taught that, illuminated by the Holy Ghost, the Wisemen offered gold as to the great King, frankincense as to God, myrrh as to the Man who was to die for the salvation of mankind.
In treating of the journey to Bethlehem, spiritual writers are wont to dwell especially on the faith of the Magi, and on the wondrous ways by which God calls sinners back to Him or draws the virtuous into closer union with Him. The gifts offered are variously interpreted as significative of charity and of moral virtues. For example, St. Gregory says: "We offer gold, if we shine by the light of wisdom: frankincense. if we are redolent with fervent prayer: myrrh. if we mortify the vices of the flesh." Another interpretation, especially applicable to Religious, is: "Gold is voluntary poverty. For this poverty is most rich, and far more pleasing to God than all the gold in the world. Frankincense is obedience, whereby a man offers his own will and intellect, yea, his entire self, to God. Myrrh is fasting, mortification of the flesh; and what springs from mortification, chastity."
Condensed from an article of Fr. fidelis Anderson, O.P. under the same title by Fr. Therasian Xavier.